Sustainability and Conversion: an interview with Susanne Heinke

Many thanks to Susanne Heinke and the Bonn International Center for Conversion for this really interesting dialogue.


Andrea Licata: Could you please explain what BICC is and what kind of projects it is carrying out?

Susanne Heinke: As an independent, non-profit organization, BICC (Internationales KONVERsionszentrum Bonn—Bonn International Center for Conversion) deals with a wide range of global topics in the field of peace and conflict research centering on Conversion Studies. Our vision is a more peaceful world. Our mission is to conduct critical, problem-oriented, policy relevant research in response to the problems posed by organized violence.
Research themes are:

  • Discourses about war
  • Civil–military boundaries
  • Arms production and political economy
  • Arms transfers and arms control
  • Base conversion and arms destruction
  • Mobilization and demobilization Use of violence.

Natural resources as well as Migration are intersecting research themes which show multiple inter-linkages with organized violence.
BICC’s portfolio includes applied research, policy advice, technical advice and capacity development, data and GIS as well as the information of the public.
(Please find more information at


AL: The 1990s were an important era regarding the conversion from military to civil. At that time, the KONVER Founds existed. Do you think they were a useful instrument? Could they be reintroduced today? What do you think of a new form of KONVER Founds extended to the Mediterranean and non-EU countries (e.g. the Caucasus, the Ukraine)?

SH: In the 1990s the KONVER program was helpful as it supported a huge process of disarmament. Let’s take Germany as an example: between 1990 and 2000 more than 700.000 soldiers from nine states were withdrawn from here; about 386.000 hectare military sites were to be transferred into civilian use. Municipalities were confronted with big structural challenges. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the German state which was affected most by the withdrawal of the allied troops, about 126.000 people who were working for the military lost their jobs. On the one hand the KONVER program and state funds helped to initiate conversion processes and to find solutions for the labor market and infrastructure. On the other hand conversion was never only a question of finances but also of re-thinking structures, changing mind-sets, communication and networking. Base conversion became part of the infrastructural change of the whole state.

Today it is often hard to make a distinction between the conversion of military sites, other industrial sites and infrastructural changes. So an exclusive program for former military sites cannot be the solution to address questions such as unemployment, pollution of areas and structural underdevelopment. The KONVER Founds were implemented at the end of the Cold War and touched only one field of conversion – base conversion. To understand this period it is necessary to see the broader picture which also included complexes such as “peace dividend”, industrial and research conversion, demobilization and disarmament. Today the question better should be – what emerged from all these efforts? And looking into the future – what could be the meaning of conversion today?


AL: After a period of apparent international disarmament and conversion at the beginning of the 1990s, we have seen several wars (Ex-Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan) and rearmament projects. In the last years, we have been facing conflicts and wars in Europe, in the Mediterranean and in Caucasus (e.g. Syria, Libya, Georgia, and in the last days the Ukraine). It seems that the military competition is increasing once again. What is your comment on these developments and on the situation today particularly regarding armament/disarmament and conversion?

SH: Indeed military expenditures worldwide have increased again since 2003. SIPRI data show that this trend has continued until 2013. Even though the military expenditure of the US in 2013 declined by 7.8 per cent in real terms, they still hold the top position in the world with 640 billion US-Dollars. A large part of the fall can be attributed to the reduction in spending on overseas military operations. The next biggest spenders were China (increased by 7.4 per cent), Russia (increased by 4.8 per cent), Saudi Arabia (increased by 14 per cent) and France (all data from SIPRI Fact sheet, April 2014). Global military expenditure was 1747 billion US-Dollars in 2013.

Another example: BICC’s Global Militarization Index (GMI, depicts the relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of one state in relation to its society as a whole. Following the GMI the scale of rearmament in the Middle East is unparalleled. Israel (GMI: 1st place) and the Arab states of Syria (GMI: 5th place), Jordan (GMI: 6th place), Kuwait (GMI: 10th place), Oman (GMI: 11th place), and Saudi Arabia (GMI: 13th place) are among the most militarized countries in the region. This high level of militarization is demonstrated among other things by the ratio between military expenditure and Gross Domestic Product, which is well over seven percent in some states in the region and thus far in excess of the world average of approximately 2.5 percent (by comparison: the figure for Germany is approximately 1.4 percent).

The rising militarization in Asia also is taking place against the background of various unsolved territorial conflicts, mutual security threats and rivalries between individual states. Although the ratio of military expenditure to Gross Domestic Product is moderate in most countries, military expenditure has nevertheless risen considerably in absolute terms. As concerns military expenditures, China (GMI: 83rd place) does not only hold a top place globally but also in Asia. China alone is responsible for 40 percent of all military expenditure in the region. The trend towards rearmament is also demonstrated by the fact that India (GMI: 73rd place), China, Pakistan (GMI: 46th place), South Korea (GMI: 7th place), and Singapore (GMI: 2nd place) have joined the ranks of the world’s leading arms importers in recent years.

The crisis in the Ukraine seems to trigger a return of the Cold War. The secretary general of Nato Anders Fogh Rasmussen repeatedly called to “invest in defense of democracy”. We fear a new conventional arms race and the return of the logic of warfare.

As this shows conversion is no linear process. Conversion studies have to deal with the problem of organized violence worldwide – be it rearmament, (new) concepts of war, mobilization and demobilization or – as part of the material background of the military – base conversion, too.


AL: Climate change is most probably the biggest global threat of our time. Which positive contribution to stop it could come from conversion projects? Could renewable energy projects be implemented in former military areas in terms of research and production?

SH: There are already some examples in Germany where former military sides are used for the implementation of renewable energy projects. North Rhine Westphalia state is planning to increase electricity generated by wind turbine plants from 4 per cent to 15 per cent of the average electricity consumption in 2020 and to make use of major conversion sites for this. In the state of Brandenburg facilities for the production of energy using photovoltaic techniques have been built.

But even this generally positive approach might lead to specific conflicts. On the one hand people living next windmill-powered plants often feel disturbed by them. On the other hand in some abandoned military sites unique biotopes for plants and animals have developed so that the implementation of renewable energy projects might lead to problems of wildlife conservation.

This shows again that base conversion has become a matter of structural change. And not to repeat myself-the basic precondition for successful conversion processes is the conversion of minds.

But there is another aspect of climate change which is a matter of conversion studies. The question of the use of non-renewable resources leads us to the overarching question of how resources are connected with organized violence.


AL: In Germany, many military sites have been successfully converted to civilian use. According to you, which are the most interesting examples that could serve as a good practice? Which mistakes need to be avoided in the future?

SH: There are many good examples for base conversion. Sites have been used for industrial purposes, labor market initiatives, habitation, universities, cultural events, tourism. One of the most exceptional conversion sites is in Kevelaer Twisteden (North Rhine-Westphalia). After the Cold War 325 NATO bunkers fell to the community which had to face problems like unemployment and the loss of infrastructure after the withdrawal of the troops. The conversion process supported by the state and the KONVER program led to unique results. One part of the area is used for the training of race horses (“bunkers to horse stables”). In other bunkers a Dutch investor is producing mushrooms. Some bunkers were converted to holiday homes, some of them to be powered by photovoltaics.

Of course some conversion projects have failed. One example is the failed gigantic Cargo Lifter project. The hangar for production and operation of the CL160 and engineering team facilities were built on the former Soviet Air Force base at Brand-Briesen Airfield (state of Brandenburg). This hangar (360 m long, 220 m wide and 106 m high) is a freestanding steel-dome “barrel-bowl” construction. In 2002, the company Cargo Lifter AG announced insolvency. The fate of parts of the 300 million euros in shareholder funds from over 70,000 investors is still unclear. In 2003, the company’s facilities were sold off for less than 20 per cent of the construction costs.

Projects become risky when the challenges were underestimated. They always suffer from the hyperbolism of investors and a lack in sustainable thinking.


AL: This blog is dedicated to the issue of sustainability. Do you think disarmament and conversion are related to sustainability?

SH: Yes, they definitely are because there is nothing less sustainable than war and militarization. I do not only talk about imbalances in state budgets caused by a strong militarization. As in some regions (as shown above) this militarization leads to an arms race with other countries a vicious circle starts. These resources are missing in the solution of the big global problems such as hunger, underdevelopment, illiteracy, climate change etc.

Conversion has to deal with the legacies of the military such as pollution of the sites by ammunition, mines or fuel. Lots of money must be spent when armament is dismantled not to mention the risks and danger that occur by dismantling chemical and nuclear weapons. And of course after a war or conflict a society has to deal with injured, traumatized persons who need support and caring.

I could continue the examples how unsustainable war is, but to make a long story short I’d like to quote the slogan “War is costly, peace is priceless”!


AL: The internet – at first a military project – is gaining importance in all sectors. Could it be considered one of the most successful cases of conversion? Could internet-related economic activities be part of the reuse and redevelopment of former military sites?

SH: Of course in some industrial used conversion sites internet business is at home (technology parks, electronic commerce centers, media companies). But I think this not a specific of ex-military sites but again is to be seen in the context of infrastructural development and changes.

Talking about the internet and challenges for conversion studies I’d rather focus on such aspects as cyber security and how the internet is used for surveillance technologies. For years, European and North American companies have supplied states such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria with the necessary technological infrastructure for filtering the Internet, blocking websites, monitoring e-mail traffic or tapping and locating mobile phones. Among the suppliers are large telecommunications groups, such as Nokia Siemens and Ericsson. The delivery of such technologies to repressive and authoritarian regimes is potentially no less problematic than the export of assault rifles or battle tanks. Surveillance technologies play a decisive role when it comes to locating, arresting, torturing and even murdering alleged dissidents.


Susanne Heinke

Susanne Heikne is Leiterin Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit / Head of Public Relations at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)


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